Recent Responses

If I investigate the Goldbach conjecture by testing individual even integers to verify that they accord with it, do I have more reason to believe that the conjecture is true the more integers I verify? Or am I in just the same epistemic position regarding the conjecture whether I've verified one integer or a billion?

As you clearly know, no matter how many integers you have checked, that will always be a finite set, and so there will always be infinitely many integers you have not checked. Unless you had some reason to believe that a counterexample to Goldbach must be "low", then, it's hard to see why your checking a handful of cases should give you any more confidence that Goldbach is true. But there are some weird issues about how probability behaves in such cases, about which Timothy WIlliamson and others have written.

Why does God not relieve the acute suffering of a child? This example incites the jury. The child's suffering and mine during a flu episode only differ in degree. The question is why God allows suffering at all. In a world of inevitable death suffering is unavoidable and is therefore as natural as elliptical orbits. Suffering (like its twin pleasure) is morally neutral and a by-product of sentience--cruelty and indifference are not neutral. For God to intervene would be to change the natural order, thus depriving humans of a full range of experience, freedom to act, and full responsibility for those actions. The terms of existence are non-negotiable. God's moral law is the architect's plan for living with these conditions. Does my argument hold any water?

I think your argument has holes that prevent it from holding much water:

1. Our world need not have been a world of inevitable death. Any God capable of creating the universe from scratch is capable of creating its physical laws, so nothing forced God to make our universe one in which everything dies. The creation of a universe having that feature is entirely God's choice. Nor could any sin we humans later committed force God to institute death as a response. That response is not dictated to God by any law; it is likewise entirely God's choice.

2. "For God to intervene would be to change the natural order..." But, again, it's a natural order that God chose to institute in the first place.

3. "...thus depriving humans of a full range of experience, freedom to act, and full responsibility for those actions." As it is, humans don't have the full range of experience: there are things (including pains and pleasures) that we can't experience but other animals can. If the freedom to act is highly valuable in itself, and if the freedom to act makes suffering inevitable, then the doctrine of a blissful heaven is incoherent, for either agents in that exalted state lack that highly valuable freedom or else they experience suffering and not just bliss. Being fully responsible for one's actions is relevant to the problem of evil only if one is fully responsible for one's wrong actions. But being fully responsible for one's wrong actions is obviously not a good in itself, or else (a) God must lack that good, since God never acts wrongly, and (b) agents in heaven must lack that good (or else must act wrongly). So a good world need not contain that kind of responsibility.

4. "The terms of existence are non-negotiable." Nothing dictated those terms to God. If there are terms of existence, then God chose them. God is not forced to live with those conditions, and God need not force others to live with those conditions.

Is it possible to answer a question with another question? is that what we called a Socratic questioning?

It seems that the word "answer" is being used in two senses in the question that you ask. Plainly, it can happen that someone asks, 'Is the tomato a fruit?' and someone else answers thus: 'What do you think?' That might well happen. But it is not the end of the story. One could count that as an answer, or as a failure to answer, or as both, but then in two different senses. It is a verbal response or reply, and "response" is one sense of "answer". There is a narrower sense of "answer", in which it means something like, "State the correct (or what the respondent takes to be correct) solution to the problem posed by the question", or something like that. This is closer to the legal sense of "answer", in which one "replies" or "makes answer" to a charge or accusation, by offering a defence. Asking a question as an answer would not work in these contexts. So if I am asked, 'What is the solution to 7x9?', what is meant is "the correct answer", and it is the answer to the question what the product of 7 and 9 is. 'What is the product of 7 and 9?' has an answer (63), and it is in this second sense no answer at all or not an answer to ask, 'What do you think?' The answer to the question, 'Is it raining' in this second sense is 'Yes' or 'No' or 'Sort of' or 'It's drizzling,' and 'I don't know' is an answer only in the first sense, a response.

Music is comprised of sound waves. Waves can be modeled mathematically using a Fourier series. So, could we then write music in terms of mathematics by using a Fourier series to represent the sound waves? Would it be worthwhile to do so? Would it have any benefit over traditional music notation?

Music is composed of sound waves, but that's only part of the story. A Fourier analysis would run the risk of including too much information, overlooking the fact that there can be very different interpretations of the same piece.

It might be possible to fudge that point. (After all, compression schemes rely on Fourier analysis, but don't include every detail.) The real point is that to be useful, musical notation has to be something that musicians can efficiently read. To make the case that Fourier analysis would be useful for that purpose would be a pretty heavy lift, I suspect. Compare: it would be possible to give a Fourier analysis of a speech in a play, at least as performed by some actor. But I'd be willing to bet that any actor would find it a lot easier just to have the words written down. Musical notation, like written words and dance notation, is able to do its job precisely because it vastly, massively underspecifies the full detail of what any performance will actually be like. The point here isn't just about leaving room for interpretation. It's about what we can reasonably expect a human brain to process.

 Are there any rationally compelling reasons to believe in a god or gods, which created the cosmos and the things in it?

Nope. But what of it?

"Rationally compelling" is too high bar. If a position really were rationally compelling, a rational person who understood it would have to be convinced. But there's very little in philosophy that meets this standard. There are rationally acceptable ways to believe in God, rationally acceptable ways to believe that there's no God, and rationally acceptable ways to be agnostic.

As for what the reasons are, that's a long story, though I'd caution against thinking they can be reduced to slogans. Of course, the same point goes for more or less all claims that philosophers debate. But somehow, some people seem to think the case of religion is different.

A friend of mine committed suicide recently, and I find myself instinctively trying not only to understand why she did it and the cause and effect of how it happened, but trying to impose meaning -- trying to work out what the "significance" of her death is, and looking to sum up her whole life the way a funeral celebrant might, and say these are the patterns and themes and shape of it, this what it amounted to, this is what it represented, these are the takeaway ethical messages for your own life. But is there really any significance in suicide, is there any point to asking what it means, or is it senseless, like washing the dishes or mowing the lawn or any other physical event or act? And is it disrespectful to try to interpret meaning into someone's life or death or reduce their life to a moral lesson? The process not only feels a little bit like a lie, but also like it objectifies them and takes away from their humanity.

You are obviously grappling with your friend's death, and I appreciate the sophistication and sensitivity evident in your question.

I think it's crucial here to distinguish the meaning or "significance" of suicide from the meaning or significance of your friend's suicide. It's important that we resist what I think of as the easy mystification of suicide. There is an unfortunate tendency to infer from our inability to understand a particular suicide or to imagine ourselves engaging in the act ourselves that suicide is unfathomable, incomprehensible, or beyond reason. The truth is we understand a fair bit about the causes of suicide, have growing knowledge of how to prevent it, and so on. We should not let our emotional reaction to suicide -- whether it be shock, dismay, anger, whatever -- lead us to treat suicide as a "senseless" or trivial act.

That said, what we know about suicide in general can be difficult to extrapolate to particular people and cases. Individual people are in certain ways more complex than our theories about human nature can sometimes capture. I don't think that it's necessarily wrong for you to interrogate why she engaged in this act and to evaluate it morally. But as you say there is the risk that in so doing, you "objectify" your friend or reduce her to her suicidal choices or acts. And that, I agree, you ought not do. She, like anyone, had a history: as someone's daughter, your friend, and so on. Trying to see her suicide as a part of her life, and trying to draw lessons (moral or otherwise) from it, need not require you to reduce her to 'a suicidal person.' Quite the contrary: her suicide can probably only be grasped against the totality of her life. In this respect, your duty to her is the same duty I suspect we have to everyone as we attempt to understand them — to sympathetically, compassionately, and fairly appraise them as the complex wholes as they are, and not distort those wholes only by reference to a single choice or episode in their lives.

Best wishes to you as you work these matters through.

If we all have personal biases (ie. every individual, being unique, perceives the same event slightly differently), how can we trust anyone to provide the real truth?

An incomplete answer, but relevant, I hope.

Suppose the question is: did Prof. Geisler show up for class on Monday? We ask students enrolled in the class. All the students who were there in the room at class time say yes: Prof. Geisler was there. In fact, she arrived on time, and taught a full class.

Let's grant that every person in the room had a slightly different take on exactly what went on in the room at that time. Let's also grant that some of what some people would say happened will be inaccurate, and may reflect their biases and psychological idiosyncrasies. The question, however, is whether Prof. Geisler showed up. There's no reason to think these differences in perception got in the way of judging that.

In one way this is a trivial example, but it reflects something extremely common. Even with our very real quirks and biases, there's an enormous amount of what we perceive and believe for which those quirks and biases are simply irrelevant. Individually, most of these facts may be inconsequential. But when we add them up, we arrive at a shared account of a great deal about the way things are. We don't all live in our own separate worlds. People who claim otherwise strike me as either not really thinking through what they're saying or else in the grip of a bad theory.

Don't many of us regard that "vision" is something like the headlights of a car, casting a beam of light on objects, originating inside the eye? Which is of course completely wrong and the truth is the opposite. Its fairly present in many cultures and even though it is just a mere figure of speech it feels wrong doesn't it?

Do the perceptual systems work from the environment in, or from the perceiver out? In English there are famously two very different groups of perceptual words, one active and one passive: look/see, listen/hear, touch/#feel, smell/smell (i.e. "smell" has two meanings, one for the activity of sniffing out - ('The dog was smelling my shoes'), and the other for a more passive kind of reception of some smell.) In his celebrated 1966 The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems J.J. Gibson argued that the active seeking out of "information" is more fundamental than passive sensing, and his famous cookie-cutter experiment showed this. If you actively move your hands relative to the object of perception, the percentage of correct identifications is very high. If the stimuli are given to you passively, the percentage drops to under half of what it was. The senses have to be active, and without activity even the passive sensation degrades. This was also shown by some early phenomenological experiments by Katz on grades of paper. It is even true in unobvious ways of vision, as can be seen by the disappearance of objects in the field of vision whose image is stabilised on the retina.

Is it fair for the government to impose something onto people that they did not want or ask for, while still expecting them to carry the burden of it? For example in 2015 the government mandated that all TV stations stop broadcasting in analog and broadcast exclusively in digital. The result of this was billions of dollars wasted in PSAs and handing out converter boxes, millions of portable TV sets ending up in landfills, and many low income families left without TV. The cost of all of this was ultimately left to taxpayers, while the government made 19 billion in spectrum auctions. In other words, the government gained a massive benefit at the expense of the citizens. Can one justify breaking a law that causes more harm than good? Lets say that I am operating a TV station in a rural area with a lot of mountains and bad weather, in which a digital signal would have poor reception. Would I be justified in broadcasting an analog TV signal in this area, even though I am legally prohibited from doing so? As consumers in a free market society, do we not have the right to make these decisions as the circumstances would necessitate. After all, we (more often than not) know the conditions we are dealing with more than the government.

Lots of questions there. I'll offer three comments.

The first is that if citizens simply get to pick and choose the laws they follow, then we don't have laws at all. The question of what makes government coercion legitimate is a big one, and I'm not a political philosopher. But if governments are ever legitimate, then it will also be legitimate to prevent people, by force if necessary, from simply ignoring laws they don't like.

The second comment is about this:

          In other words, the government gained a massive benefit at the expense of the citizens.

I'd suggest there's a confusion here. The government isn't a private corporation. Money that "the government" has is money that the State has, and, if the State isn't corrupt, the government (the institutional embodiment of the State) uses the money for the benefit of its citizens. It's not stowed in secret bank accounts that government officials can draw on for their own benefit.

Finally, is it ever justified to break a law that does more harm than good? It may be, though the State will still have a prima facie justification for prosecuting the lawbreakers. This goes back to the first point: some citizen may believe that some law does more harm than good. But a "state" that leaves these judgments up to individual citizens will not be a state at all. Some people may have enough faith in human nature to believe that anarchy is a better alternative than the State, even if the State is a functioning modern democracy. Most of us aren't convinced, however interesting and difficult problem providing a good theory of the State may be.

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